CARTOGRAPHY FOR BEGINNERS

The game was complete with empty glasses of original pirate peanut butter whiskey…

This post will not be an attempt to teach you anything, to be honest. The title is a lie. If you thought it wasn’t going to be a lie, you have, in fact, failed your Wisdom check.

This past weekend I got a chance to finally play Treasure Island with my fiancé and quarantine pod members. This Shut Up & Sit Down review of the game is what sold me on it almost a year ago now, and I’ve been hunting for the best chance to experience it. You see, as a board gamer, tabletop RPG gamer, and really all around gamer, I seek out that “experience” play that only certain games can provide. It’s why Dread is my favorite RPG – every session I’ve ever run or played has elicited a very specific experience that only it can give me.

As we were playing, my genius sister was like, “why don’t you take a picture of this for your BLOG?” At first I wasn’t sure why, but as we continued to play, them seeking out my treasure and me hopelessly clinging to my perfect treasure-hiding talents, a picture began to form quite literally in front of all of us of our experience with the game. No doubt, that’s the intent behind the game, but as you can see our map from playing tells a story even with you never having seen a single moment of our gameplay.

Map Close Up

One quick note on the game – the black marker was anything I did as Long John Silver – they were clues that may – or maybe not – were accurate as to where I hid my treasure. The other colors, a little difficult to make out, were for each separate player/character. In this way, you can see exactly where they were searching on the island.

This isn’t a review of Treasure Island, although it was fun, and I think it will be much, much better on future play throughs. It’s not a retelling either of our experience playing the game.

This is a full-on endorsement to use maps to your full advantage in your games. OSR or not, maps help players and GM alike share a common history of the events of a game, and what else is a story if not a retelling of history – of something happening?

More so though, Treasure Island shows the power of letting your players mark maps themselves. It’s not a game with a GM, but it is asymmetrical, and as the odd-one-out Long John Silver, it certainly felt like being the GM at times, and it was great. I handed our secrets like they were cursed gold doubloons, and every time I could sow doubt or suspicion, I certainly did. I left it up to the pirates to decide whether or not I could be trusted.

But as the players drew their paths and search circles on the map, a story began to unfold with very little detail from me. They trotted all over the island looking for my treasure, and in the end one of the other players did find the gold! But you know what? That wasn’t the best part for any of us – even the winner. The best parts were those moments where they discovered and uncovered the secrets I had laid out before them as a result of the work they put into the map themselves.

Give your players the tools to do the work for themselves, and they’ll give you back gold many times over. Now I just gotta figure out the easiest way to do this kind of map in Roll20…

ANCIENT BATTLEFIELD GENERATOR

Well as it turns out, I struck a cord with my post on Saturday about ancient battlefields on your hex map, and it makes sense! I love resources and things that spark my imagination too! I love settings with a deep history even if as a player I never discover those secrets – you want the world to be lived in, you want verisimilitude even when there are people with literal dog heads walking around in heavy plate armor swinging broadswords at giants (more on that in a future post!).

At the same time, one of my all-time favorite pages in any RPG book is page 46 in The Black Hack 2nd Edition hardcover book. I’ve mentioned before that TBH is my OSR/RPG system of choice and even with homebrew changes, that’s still the foundation of what my stuff is all based on.

So what’s so special about page 46? Well, it’s a one-page NPC generator in which the GM can grab a handful of common RPG dice – a d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 – and rolls them. Each die has a corresponding table, and after you roll those five dice, you have a really solid foundation for a quick NPC. AND IT’S FUN! As the GM, it’s the kind of thing that I love – I get to discover stuff too!

I decided to copy this concept (and I’m sure it existed previously to The Black Hack, but this is my first real exposure to it, so I’ll stick to it) in order to provide a tool to create an ancient battlefield site to fill a hex map. Roll on this table three or four (or more!) times and plop them on an empty hex map. I’m confident this is a decent place to start with populating just about everything else on your map.

ADDENDUM

I had a kind Reddit user ask how to use this, and so I did an example use of the generator and now want to find out more about these crazy feuding dwarf lords I came up with! Below is what I wrote in response to the Redditor’s question:

There’s two main uses I see for this generator – when you building a hex map of a region or when you need to improvise quickly because your party just traveled into a hex you hadn’t prepared anything for yet!

Take a handful of your basic RPG dice minus a d20. Roll one of each, and then apply your results to the table for each die. For example:

1d4: 4 – The Battle is well-known among academics and historians

1d6: 4 – It was a Battle between rival lords

1d8: 7 – The area contains a holy sit important to the locals

1d10: 2 – The battle was between dwarfs. I could have rolled this one twice if I wanted it between two different peoples, but considering the battle was between rival lords, I like the idea of it being two dwarven lords and kept it as that.

1d12: 12 – A completely sealed iron box with something inside can be found on the battlefield.

So taking all these together, you can see that we have quite an interesting little story just from rolling a handful of dice. Two rival dwarf lords fought a battle here in relatively recent history/memory. Perhaps survivors of the battle settled down here and have been searching for the iron box with something hidden inside – perhaps the box itself contains a holy relic that the dwarf lords were fighting over.

You can riff in a bunch of different directions here, but just with that little bit of information, it really creates a bit of personality for the hex it’s found in.

The next step would be to ask where the two dwarf armies came from – are they local, or did they march for weeks to this site? If they’re local, maybe the dwarf kingdoms are now abandoned dungeons that could be explored or perhaps the dwarf lord descendants still hold the castles. If they’re not local, perhaps there are great roads that were founded by the marching armies as they made their way to this battlefield.

Now you can see we don’t just have information for this hex but perhaps some surrounding ones as well. That’s what makes this stuff so much fun in my experience and why I love being a DM! Before I rolled those five dice, I didn’t have any of this, but now I have a really fun adventure seed and surrounding area my players could explore.

Finger Paint Your Setting.

I love miniature painting. No, I don’t like miniature painting, I love it. I’m not particularly great at it (and oh boy, when I see someone who’s serious about painting show me their stuff, I feel it in my gut that “great” is something I might not even be aspiring toward…), but it’s probably one of my top four or five hobbies that I find myself rotating between throughout the course of my life.

Because of this, I watch a lot of painting tutorials and even just discussions on youtube. I find them inspiring and fuel my own desire to just apply brush to plastic/resin/metal. My favorite casual painting discussion show is Trapped Under Plastic. Why am I talking about painting on an OSR/RPG resources blog? Well I think we can apply a lot of what these guys talk about to our own little gaming niche.

Primarily today I want to talk about Jon’s recent video about finger painting your miniatures, which is somehow almost more implausible than finger painting your setting. You see, in this video, and many of his videos, Jon talks about the freedom of painting and how we need to make our hobbies our own. We need to think outside of the box and consider techniques that may seem blasphemous or even foolish to try to innovate and find new, exciting way to forge our paths.

So what does that mean for us? What is the equivalent of finger painting for writing a setting, creating a hex map, or even just designing a single room in a dungeon? One idea is to look to unlikely inspiration for your creations.

Let’s work on an example below from unlikely inspiration through execution.

LET’S START AT THE END

For Christmas, my fiance and I got one of our close friend’s daughter a set of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie… books as a gift, and we sat there Christmas morning with her wanting to be read them right away! As we were reading them to her, my mind wandered. I’m only human. I began thinking about applying this principal of getting in too deep too quickly to dungeon design.

There’s a lot of great ideas and advice out there for building a dungeon with lots of hooks, possible resolutions, and increasing your verisimilitude all at the same time, so why not add to that pile of great advice?

When you’re building anything from your game, one way to approach it is from the center of the maze and build outward around it. The point of this maze from the player’s side of the GM screen is to get to the center, but when you’re prepping a game, you might start from the center and build up the mazes – the twists and turns around it – and get to your starting point in reverse.

Word of caution – this is not the “end” of an adventure or dungeon in that you’re predicting exactly what will happen – that’s rail roading, and many players frown upon that. Instead, think of this as what is happening without player intervention, and let the player characters change the world with their actions – now we got a game!

IF YOU GIVE A BEHOLDER A BISCUIT

So let’s put a Beholder at the center of the imaginary maze. The Beholder is the Mouse from the book example above (too many metaphors? nah!), and let’s make this maze a floating sky castle because I like how that looks. Something like one of these from Avatar.

So what does a Beholder want? What’s the cookie for this mouse Beholder? Let’s say he’s hoarding rare sky crystals that can only be farmed from these floating mountains. He set up shop here because he considers the sky crystals a delicacy, and why not set up shop right next to the finest source of his favorite food? What else is a Beholder to do?

Okay, so now we’ve got a sky fortress built around a Beholder who wants sky crystals because he likes to eat them. If you give a Beholder a sky fortress, he’s probably going to need mind slaves to harvest those sky crystals. If you give him mind slaves, he’s probably going to want to have some mind slave guards to keep his slave population in check.

If you give a Beholder a sky fortress to harvest sky crystals harvested by his mind slaves which are in turn guarded by mind slave guards, he’s probably going to be facing a constant threat of revolt from the mind slaves, so he’s likely going to bring in some minor, lesser mind-controlling lieutenants to further dominate his slaves (and guards!), but how is he going to make sure his lieutenants are kept in check?

Hold up. I’m going to stop myself right there, because holy smokes, we’ve got ourselves quite the adventure in front of us! Will the players plunder the sky fortresses for their own supply of sky crystals? Will the players seek to help free the mind slaves? Will they aid a lieutenant in over throwing the Beholder, or maybe they’ll work to free the guards to in turn free the slaves?

There’s so much here to sink your teeth into, and you can see how each little aspect I added to it could be split into further paths – it’s a fractal approach to game design – ever expanding. And it all started with asking the question of what a Beholder wants. The Beholder is at the top of the pyramid, and everything else flowed out down and outward from it.

Thanks Laura Numeroff!

IN CONCLUSIVO

So that was fun. It was a good little time for me, and I hope it helps spark something in you. I’m going to probably be taking that approach in the next couple of weeks thanks to a recent purchase of this amazing Frost Giant model from Steamforged games and their Epic Encounters line. I don’t normally just buy miniatures to paint, but I love giants, I don’t know why exactly, and now I want to build an adventure up around that guy. (He has living wolves tied to his legs as ankle warmers!).

But that’s not really what this post is about. It’s about finding inspiration in unlikely places. I took the lead of something considered largely childish and imprecise – finger painting applied to a miniature – and decided to look to a similarly childish thing like children’s books. But there’s so much out there in the world to look to. My parting advice here is to keep your eyes open and don’t forget to jot down inspiration, wherever you find it for your next game!

SPLIT THE PARTY – Why include ancient battlefields on your maps.

Recently Reddit user LostGrail put forth the question I copied into the title of the post to the /r/OSR community, and it really fueled my brain to think about answers for it. I don’t intend to do this often, but I thought I would share my thoughts here and potentially expand upon them as well.

GHOST AND GHOULS

One great example in fantasy would be Tolkien’s Dead Marshes in Middle Earth. Ghosts that appear in the water to our terrified master hobbits are spirits of the fallen warriors from a great battle from an age long ago. That’s a pretty memorable part of Frodo and Sam’s journey and could be a really fun sequence of travel in a campaign.

It doesn’t have to be limited to ghosts, of course. Perhaps the land is populated by a horde of ghouls who found a treasure trove of corpses that will feed their families for years. Even ghouls have a family, right?

TREASURE AND BANDITS

There’s also the idea that these battle fields may still have actual treasure, specifically that of armor and arms left behind from dead soldiers. For whatever reason, a lot of samurai fiction I’ve read or seen have featured this idea – that battlefields are full of corpses just waiting to be plundered.

As a result of such rumors of treasure, they can also attract bandits and thieves, and now you have a whole little side adventuring site and faction or factions to introduce to your players. A village is very likely to have sprung up as well from trade of such goods long ago, even if the village itself no longer deals in trading such dishonorable goods as the arms and armor of heroic, but dead, soldiers.

STRATEGIC WORTH THEN – AND NOW

Battlefields are also often sites of strategic value to the armies that fought there as well and could certainly be a site where a coming battle will also come to a head. Perhaps just the renown and legend of the site is worth fighting over as a symbol to one or both sides of a battle. Maybe a group of rangers, remnants of a long lost people, remain behind to safeguard the sites much like, again, the Dunedain of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

FORGOTTEN LEGACY

Perhaps the battle brought many different types of people from across the land together fighting on each side, and there are some survivors who stayed behind and “went native” – why does the local village appear to have so many half-orcs around when the surrounding area is all elves?

Assimilation is a very real thing in history – if you’ve got the right group, you could tell a story that mirrors some real life atrocities like residential schools in Canada or European treatment of aboriginal peoples in Australia – generally speaking just the horrific story of colonialism. But again, only with the right group and buy-in from everyone taking it seriously.

WELL-KNOWN LEGACY

Finally, places like Gettysburg in America where a big pivotal battle took place has lots of interesting cultural quirks and have a lot of tourists, reenactments, etc. Could be interesting to introduce a similar culture in a medieval setting. Plenty of independent tour guides for hire could also be good hirelings to find local dungeons and give good (or bad!) information on what’s out there in the wilds.

INSPIRATION FOR THE SURROUNDING AREA

Well those are just the ideas off the top of my head, but although I don’t have a lot of experience making hex maps, I would assume plopping an ancient battlefield or two on the map would be a fantastic way to expand outward and map out the surrounding areas.

For example the fabled story of the Spartan 300 fighting at Thermoplyae, literally “The Hot Gates” in translation was a battle site specifically because of the surrounding geography – much like I mentioned above that battlefields are often of great strategic importance both then and now still today. It’s a mountainous region with a body of water to one side and a very narrow path leading through it to move an army. It was obviously a great spot for a smaller force to make their attempt to hold off against a larger force.

Asking why this site was a battlefield will start answering a lot of questions and quickly fill up blank spaces on the map – and that’s what always gets us stuck right – a blank canvas? It’s a great approach to give yourself a rocket starting out with a lot to work with quickly.

Header image is from John Steeple Davis from The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century : a comprehensive history, founded upon the leading authorities, including a complete chronology of the world, and a pronouncing vocabulary of each nation.